One Woman’s Battle Against Mandatory Hijab

A powerful woman, a protest movement, and the political interests impeding them.

I mages of Iranian women standing on utility boxes and ripping off their mandatory hijab have become the lasting image of ongoing protests in the Islamic Republic. And yet, as officials in the Trump administration have embraced those images and vocally supported the women, the discomfort that Western liberals have the idea of regime change in the country, and how that affects their interpretation of hijab protests, has been on full display.

A recent memoir by Masih Alinejad, The Wind in My Hair, shows us just how misguided that cynicism is. Covering her head against her wishes was one of the simpler cruelties she endured in the Islamic Republic. She was kicked out of high school for asking witty questions of her teachers, later imprisoned, and separated from her son by a retaliatory custody arrangement followed by forced exile from the Islamic Republic.

On a website called “ My Stealthy Freedom,” which started as a Facebook page, Alinejad posts women’s statements along with selfies and other photographs o fstolen moments of unveiled freedom. Some hide their faces for fear of retaliation. Others risk the fearsome consequences. Now, the viral sensation has take to the streets, and to Twitter, where such actions are even even more dangerous: #TheGirlsofRevolutionStreet has drawn comparisons to #MeToo, but it is more direct than the American effort to expose workplace harassment: The mandatory hijab, as Alinejad’s writing and activism illustrate, is a form of symbolic imprisonment from which these women seek physical freedom. Still, the word mandatory deserves extra emphasis here: Alinejad campaigns for choice, not for a return to the hijab ban Reza Shah Pahlavi instituted.

Still, many in the West confuse and conflate support for this freedom with an expression of Islamophobia or an embrace of regime change. Contempt seeps through in some recent coverage, particularly a New Yorker piece this week that condemned American official support for the feminist uprising in Iran.

“There’s a dimension of the piece that’s predictable,” said Brookings Institute scholar and Iran expert Suzanne Maloney. The same writer, an Iranian-American woman, defended foreigners’ donning the hijab while in Iran in an earlier article. And, generally, among the Iranian diaspora community in the U.S., “Anything that looks or sounds like regime change evokes a lot about of anxiety,” Maloney added.

Alinejad never wavers in her love of simple and righteous defiance. From her first taste of freedom from the mandatory hijab, she was hooked. On a reporting trip to Beirut in the mid-2000s, she and another Iranian journalist walked the streets openly unveiled—Alinejad with her wild curls free in the wind in the public square for the first time. She finally understood the weight of the hijab’s restraining power. It was a revelation: “In Beirut, women had a choice; some chose the hijab, but others didn’t. And yet the fabric of Lebanese society had not fallen apart.”

Her viral campaign against the regime’s hijab mandate, a fact of life for Iranian women since 1979, began with accidental Facebook virality. As a dissident reporter in exile, she posted to Facebook a photo her fiance had taken of her running free through cherry blossom lined London streets.

“Whenever I’m running free and my hair is dancing in the wind, I remember that I come from a country where for thirty-odd years my hair has been taken hostage by those in power,” she wrote in the accompanying caption. “No one has been able to free their hair from the hands of the hostage takers, who keep saying, ‘The time is not right.’”

The reaction was immense, and almost immediate—her hundreds of thousands of fans and followers commented and soon started to respond with pictures of their own illicit free moments. The Wind in My Hair is, among other things, the story of what can make a reporter abandon objectivity to become an activist: Because by the time this post catapulted the movement that’s made Alinejad famous, she was already more than a reporter.

She was a one-woman conduit for the suffering country she left behind. While living in London and reunited with her son Pouyan, she recorded interviews from Iranians whose families had been imprisoned and murdered, airing her work on an award-winning radio series. Inmates called her on contraband cell phones from Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, home to political detainees—including Alinejad herself, early in her pregnancy, before her exile separated them for the first 10 years of his life. Before that, she’d covered the regime from within Iran as a columnist for a reformist newspaper.

But once she’d left for London, and then the U.S., reporting the realities of life in Iran made her a dangerous revolutionary by the government’s standards. Her third professional life as an activist came naturally. Alinejad now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, former Bloomberg columnist Kambiz Foroohar who helped with the book.

High-profile powwows with Tina Brown and Sheryl Sandberg carry Alinejad’s story to her contemporary status as a global human rights leaders. And contemplation of how Trump-era complications knock her cause down a peg or two remind us that the honest activist’s work is never easy.

Alinejad was a gadfly from her grade school days in the remote northern village of Ghomikola, where she climbed every tree while her mother lovingly called her back down to earth. A religious conservative so pious that she slept in her hijab, Alinejad’s mother is a good-humored woman with a worldly personal power: When talking back to a teacher got her daughter booted from school with just a year left, it was she, an illiterate tailor, who cleverly convinced the board of education to transfer Alinejad to a more prestigious school instead.

Historically, social and political problems take precedence for Iranian women who seek reform. But, “by focusing on a symbol so fixed, it was more of a challenge to the system,” said Maloney of Alinejad’s movement. “Women of all ages have responded to her on social media, communicating with her, over the years,” as a result—women who before would have said politics were more important than what one wore on her head. “Masih challenged that assumption,” Maloney says. Perhaps nothing is more important than the hijab requirement and its inherent cruelty, for which there is no defense. “There’s really no basis in Islamic law for these types of requirement,” Maloney said.

The reactions the hijab protests have evoked prove what women know in their hearts to be true: that the simple requirement is spiritually debasing and physically confining. “There are those who say hijab is a small concern and the country faces bigger issues,” Alinejad writes. “My in-box is full of messages from women who think this is a big concern. Let us respect other people’s ‘small concerns.’” The campaign for women’s choice in hijab wearing demands not just the restoration of basic standard of dignity for all—but the natural joy a woman feels with the wind in her hair. It is no small concern.

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